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Julien Weiss Discusses Traditional and Contemporary Arab Music
By Sami Asmar
In 1976, a 23-year-old French classical guitarist listened to a record of classical Arab music, fell in love with it, and dedicated the rest of his life to studying this art. Born and raised in Paris, Julien Weiss, of Swiss and Alsatian heritage, has become one of the few accomplishedqanun players in the world, having studied with masters from throughout the Arab world.
Ten years after that initial discovery, and after living and studying in various Arab countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, and Turkey, he settled in Aleppo, the capital of the northern region of Syria. He converted to Islam, learned Arabic, and adopted the name Jalal Eddine. He bought and refurbished a 16th-century Mamluk palace in the historical part of town and converted it into a Diwan Halabi, a court for traditional music. This is also the title of one of his 14 CDs, on which he performs with singer Sabri al-Mudallal; “Diwan Halabi” is one of his best recordings.
In 1983, Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss founded Al-Kindi Ensemble and, from their base in Aleppo, toured Europe and the Arab world many times accompanied by various renowned vocalists such as Hussein al-Azami from Iraq; Sabri al-Mudallal, Omar Sarmini, and Adib al-Daiykh from Aleppo; Shaykh Hamza Shakkur from Damascus; and Lotfi Bushnak from Tunisia. Vocals were not his primary interest, though he has grown to like them; his passion is for instrumental compositions. Recognized as one of the leading ensembles devoted to classical Arab music, the group includes a nay (Ziyad Kadi Amin), oud (Qadri Dalal), and riqq (Adel Shams al-Din), in addition to the qanun.
Earlier this year, Al-Kindi Ensemble teamed with Sheikh Hamza Shakkur and the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus on a U.S. tour. Weiss combined his Los Angeles concert with a two-week academic visit at UCLA, giving various seminars and lessons on the qanun. Weiss was more than happy to give the sponsor of his concert an exclusive interview. He seemed to always attract a crowd and was willing to talk for hours with any person who went up to him with a question. An animated and dynamic man, he spoke English with a French accent and spoke Arabic with the Aleppo dialect. One sensed a prevailing curiosity about the mystery and charm of the Frenchman (with the looks of English pop star Sting), who has picked up even the smallest of customs of old Aleppo and is touring the world to showcase the music that he loves and passionately defends. If asked about qanun techniques, he would put on a show of acrobatically uncommon skills. If asked about the spirit of the music, he would improvise emotive maqamat for nearly a half hour.
Asmar: Why does Arab music appeal to you and how do you explain it to your fellow Europeans?
Weiss: I am in love with Arab music, but my relationship with it differs from that of an Arab because I am not one. I started liking Arab music when I first heard a recording of Munir Bashir in 1976. It immediately struck me that this is highly intellectual music, call it scientific, but with a spirit. This art has a long history of development with theoreticians and philosophers, such as Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, and, of course, al-Kindi, although no musical notation is found from that era, or any era for that matter, prior to the Cairo Congress of 1932. This art is still alive due to its strong spirit, but barely so. By chance, the city I live in, Aleppo, is one of the last remaining centers with a high level of tradition for this aesthetic and scientific music. I am lucky to live in this atmosphere and catch the spirit of this music. One of the reasons Munir Bashir’s music appealed to me because it is easier for a foreigner to listen to instrumental music rather than voice, due to the language barrier (this is before I learned Arabic). That is also why our ensemble played only instrumental compositions from 1986 to 1990. We did not introduce singers until the 1990s.
Asmar: How did you discover the music of Munir Bashir?
Weiss: A French scholar and specialist in Arab music, Jean-Claude Chabrier of the National Center for Scientific Research, had assembled for 30 years an impressive collection of works by solo musicians such as Munir Bashir on the oud and published them on an album called Arabesque. His other collections included Mohammad Sabsabi on the qanun, and many others. Chabrier’s important contributions extended beyond collecting the music to his sophisticated analysis of the microtonal system included in a booklet with the Bashir album. The booklet also contained a comparative study of the scale systems of the Arabs, Persians, and Turks. I found this work to be deep because it was not primitive folk music but an art that provided me with intellectual stimulation.
To this day, by the way, I urge Arab musicians to appeal to Europeans through intellectual simulation, far removed from the cheap music of nightclubs or show business.Chabrier presented psychological metaphors to explain tarab and ecstasy. He had to borrow from metaphysics to describe the relationship between the performer and the audience. To make a long story short, the combination of the scientifically analytic point of view and the spiritual one appealed to me, especially through the work of Bashir’s improvisation and expression.
Asmar: What is unique about Munir Bashir?
Weiss: One impressive aspect of Bashir was the precision of his risha (pick: the Arabic word for feather, from which picks used to be made). It is the aristocratic risha from the school of Sherif Muhhyiddin Haydar. I stress here that this was not a Turkish style, as some claim, but Arab style. Haydar was an Arab prince. His style emphasized a clean risha, while most other oud players have a heavy risha. Even most Arabs found Bashir’s style unusual for two reasons. First was his style of picking the strings, or risha, and, second, he played with the spirit of the maqam Iraqi, which has no qafla (cadence) as with the Egyptian style. In fact, there is a bit of Egyptian and Syrian imperialism in Arab music. Tunisian or Iraqi maqam, for example, do not use classical qaflat (cadences) to conclude the improvisations. Iraqis have a special style that is closer to the Persian radif, a compass of music more archaic. This quality was not fully appreciated by Egyptian or Syrian audiences, some of whom mistakenly felt it sounded like a guitar or lacked tarab.
Asmar: Curiously, you were interested in Bashir but not in the oud. Why did you pick the qanun?
Weiss: I used to be a classical guitarist in France, and even played Brazilian music and jazz. At the time, I strongly believed that success came as a result of hard work and practiced for up to 15 hours a day sometimes. The French use the term “stukanovist” after a Russian leader who preached that success comes only with hard work and countless hours of effort. I did not respect other musicians who did not show the same dedication or at least energy. I later learned the Arabic word muwazaf (employee) which applies to them, which means showing up to the office just to count the hours before going home.
In 1976, after my exposure the Bashir, I picked up the oud. The oud was very close to the guitar and especially easy for the left hand. I found it awkward, however, to play with a risha because we don’t use that for the guitar, and I struggled with my right hand. So I quickly lost interest in playing the oud. I decided to study the qanun in 1977 and went to Egypt to learn it, in a stukanovist sort of way.
Asmar: Did you meet Munir Bashir?
Weiss: Yes, I spent a lot of time with him in Baghdad before he passed away. It was difficult to travel there from Syria, via Jordan in buses and taxis through the desert, but worth it. I learned a lot from him and was happy that he agreed to spend a lot of time with me.
Asmar: Did the Syrians easily accept you?
Weiss: The Syrians are great people. I have lots of friends and managed to establish residence there where I truly feel at home; you must visit me at my palace there, plenty of room. The funny part is that I think I confused the state security services more than anybody else. It took them a while to realize that I am who I say I am, simply a qanunplayer.
Asmar: Is there anything special about your qanun?
Weiss: Of course. It is a custom-made for me by a Turkish maker but has the dimension of an Arabic qanun (Turkish qanuns are smaller). It is actually significantly larger than the standard Arab qanun because I had him add several more bass strings. But what really makes it unique is the number of levers, called urab or mandals. Although I consider myself aqanun player in the Arab style, I noticed the difference between the way Arabs and Turks handle microtones. Although Western music divides the distance between notes into two halves (the half step is designated as sharp or flat) Eastern music divides into as many as nine subdivisions, often called comas. The Arabs chose to simplify that by convention into four subdivisions and that is where the term quarter step comes from. Having said that, Arab musicians still use smaller subdivisions although the notation does not call for it. For example the E-half flat for the maqam Hijaz is slightly higher than the E-half flat for themaqam Bayyati. On fretless instruments, it is not a problem to use your finger to reach that level of detail. On the qanun, however, you need the levers to be in the right place. So, the Turks keep more levers and allow for these comas. Arab qanun makers got in the habit of installing fewer levers. In my custom-made instrument I have as many as 15 mandals for some strings. That is an impressive level of detail. Listen to these examples.